IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

Recently in this column, we looked at THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), which was the last of the serious Universal INVISIBLE MAN movies, before the invisible one went on to meet Abbott and Costello, in a film obviously played for laughs. I mentioned that the lead in that movie was Jon Hall, and that it was his second time playing an invisible man.

Hall first played the invisible fellow in INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), the subject of today’s IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, which makes Hall the only actor to play the Invisible Man as the lead role in more than one movie. Vincent Price played the Invisible Man twice as well, but one of those performances was a cameo in the final seconds of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Price also played the lead in the first INVISIBLE MAN sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940).

INVISIBLE AGENT never made the rounds on the Saturday afternoon horror movie docket when I was a kid, and so I never caught up with this one until as an adult I purchased it on DVD. It probably didn’t show up back in the day because it’s really not a horror movie. That’s right, INVISIBLE AGENT is a war movie, as the main character, Frank Griffin, who changes his name to Frank Raymond, is a descendant of the original Claude Rains’ character Jack Griffin in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). The film takes place in 1942, the year it was made, and Frank agrees to use the invisibility formula to turn himself into an invisible agent to help thwart the Nazis!

And since this isn’t a horror movie, even though the dangers of the invisibility formula are mentioned briefly in the film, main character Frank Raymond really doesn’t have to worry all that much about going insane like his infamous ancestor. That horrific plot point isn’t really on the menu here.

In INVISIBLE AGENT, Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) agrees to work with the United States government to turn himself invisible and take on the Nazis. His contact in Germany is the beautiful Maria Sorenson (Illona Massey). Together, they work to thwart the plans of Nazi Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) and Japanese villain Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). They succeed rather easily, because most of the bad guys in this one are portrayed as hapless buffoons.

Most of INVISIBLE AGENT is played for laughs, which actually works against this movie. It would have been a much more intriguing flick had the plot been taken a bit more seriously. It’s not a horror movie, and it’s not much of a wartime thriller, and that’s two strikes against it. It is, however, an amusing light “let’s beat up on the Nazis” movie which since it was released in the middle of World War II, most likely was a crowd pleaser.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, one of classic horror’s best writers, with screenplay credits that include THE WOLF MAN (1941), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), to name just a few, isn’t one of his best, but it does make for a lighthearted World War II adventure with decent characters and interesting dialogue.

Jon Hall fares better as an invisible man here in INVISIBLE AGENT than he would later in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, as his character here is likable and heroic, and he possesses a spunky sense of humor. Illona Massey makes for a strong female heroine as Maria Sorenson. She would play another effective heroine the following year in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, playing Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.

The two best performances in the movie however belong to Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre as the two villains. A huge part of this is that in this easygoing movie, both Hardwicke and Lorre play things straight and are really quite nefarious. Lorre delivers the better performance of the two, although it’s jarring and by today’s standards disturbing to watch him play a Japanese character. It wasn’t an issue back in 1942, as Lorre even made an entire film series as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto back in the 1930s.

On the other hand, J. Edward Bromberg’s Nazi Karl Heiser is entirely played for laughs. Bromberg would go on to appear in two other Universal horror movies, as vampire expert Professor Lazlo in SON OF DRACULA (1943), and as one of the Paris Opera owners in the Claude Rains remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

Edwin L. Marin directed INVISIBLE AGENT, and there are plenty of entertaining scenes, from the silly dinner sequence where an invisible Frank sabotages Nazi Karl Heiser’s plans for a romantic evening with Maria, to Frank’s inspired escape from Conrad Stauffer and his Nazi henchman. But the film never takes itself all that seriously, and at the end of the day, its lighthearted humor didn’t really work all that well for me.

The invisible special effects by John Fulton are still pretty impressive. In fact, Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects but lost out to the effects team on REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Sadly, none of the impressive Invisible Man effects in any of the Universal Invisible Man movies ever won an Oscar. Ironically, Fulton would go on to win two Academy Awards for special effects, for the Daniel Kaye musical comedy WONDER MAN (1945) and for DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).

INVISIBLE AGENT is an amusing movie if you are in the mood for a playful tale about an invisible man making fools out of Nazis. You could do a lot worse, to be sure.

But it’s not a horror movie, nor is it an overly exciting adventure, and so at the end of the day, INVISIBLE AGENT only worked for me as a minor diversion. The best part by far are the two villainous performances by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke and Peter Lorre.

Any other attributes are all rather… invisible.

—END—

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